Updated: May 23, 2018
In 1981 a small Japanese company most people had never heard of outside of Japan was struggling to break into arcade games. After a few misfires with some Space Invaders inspired shooters Nintendo decided to take a chance on a run and climb style game staring a mustashed hipster in overalls. The game was obviously inspired by the classic film King Kong, but this similarity maybe only made it more accessible to it's audience. Donkey Kong became an instant and cultural hit. One could even argue out of the "Golden Age" of early 80's arcade games only the Pac-Man series is more culturally relevant. It is also credited as being one of the first "platform" style games, a genre that would shape the dominance of Nintendo's home system offerings for years to come with classics such as Super Mario Brothers and countless others.
Turns out kids really like role-playing as a chubby plumber, who knew?
Donkey Kong made a big splash at home, thanks to a fantastic (for the time) conversion to the Colecovision home console. Donkey Kong had a cereal, lunchboxes, and even a segment in the popular Saturday morning cartoon "Saturday Supercade". Heck I even had an unlicensed version for my TRS-80 Color Computer which was pretty good. The follow up game, Donkey Kong Junior also found success in the arcades as well as home releases. Junior made Mario the bad guy for the first and only time, added new more exciting dynamics to the jump and run gameplay, and cemented Nintendo as a serious player in arcade video games. Although unfortunately Mario's girlfriend whom he rescued in Donkey Kong would go missing in the sequel. Maybe that is the reason he became the bad guy, it's ok he would move on to Princesses in a few years.
Suck it Intellivision II owners, you know what you did.
Nintendo obviously knew they had a goldmine on their hands. So why put all the stars from Donkey Kong in one game next time? The team of Mario and Donkey Kong would be spun off into two different games. This seemed like a great idea, and an almost Disney like strategic approach to creating marketable characters would start to develop for the company at this point. Something Nintendo would continue to be excellent in, as this was the start of the huge empire of Nintendo characters like Yoshi, Link, or the huge array of Pokemon characters. Mario would be joined by his new found brother Luigi for the arcade game Mario Bros. A two player early platform game that would be popular and influences for later Super Mario games for years to come. Mario Bros. would go one to be another arcade hit for Nintendo, thanks to it's excellent two player cooperative game play. So what about the big fuzzy guy and his big break out game?
Overalls were very big in the 80's I guess.
Donkey Kong would get his own spin off game to try to break away from the Mario Brothers. He would be joined by a new character Stanley The Bug Man, who looks like a slightly more rounded clean shaven Mario. DK 3 would borrow a lot from an early Nintendo game (Released in the USA under Sega) Space Firebird, and from the classic Namco shooter Galaxian. Instead of the typical run and jump to get to the top of the screen like previous Donkey Kong games, DK3 would arm you with a weapon (A bug sprayer) to shoot at... um... Donkey Kongs rear end. (yes, it's true) Donkey Kong hangs from vines at the top of the play field. (The monitor is vertical just like the two previous Donkey Kong games) Stanley the Bugman runs and jumps on several beams or floors above or beneath him. These beams look very much like the beams in the previous Donkey Kong games Mario would run up and down on. You shoot the bug sprayer at Donkey Kong and the flying insects. If you're able to force Donkey Kong to the very top of the screen, or kill all the insects you advance to the next level. A super spray can on the vines falls down when Donkey Kong is sprayed past it. The insects will also try to steal the flowers at the bottom of the screen that I guess Stanley is trying to protect as a greenskeeper. The game has three different levels, compared to four in the two previous Donkey Kong games.
That's what was missing from the first game, bug spray!
DK 3 was confusing to fans of the first two games, since it was such a radical departure from the previous run and jump platforming. And probably seemed uninteresting as a stand alone game on it's own merits. While Mario Bros. would go on to see home releases on computers and consoles. DK 3 was buried except for a rare Japan only release for NEC and Sharp home computers. Also one thing to keep in mind was the amazing games that would have been in the arcade in 1983 competing for the average players quarter. The laserdisc classic Dragon's Lair, Atari's vector masterpiece Star Wars, Spy Hunter, Track and Field, and even Nintendo's Punch Out all showed up in 1983. DK 3 not only was let down by it's own faults, but was also crushed by the competition in the arcade. Stanley the Bug Man would show up for a cameo in Donkey Kong's cartoon, and a few scattered things through Nintendo's history but for the most part he would be as forgotten as the game itself. As the years rolled along DK 3 would see a release on the NES video game system, along with some other lackluster Nintendo arcade games like Popeye and Mach Rider. Although I am willing to bet very few kids were dying to get DK 3 in their stockings for Christmas in the mid 80's compared to Super Mario Brothers or Castlevania.
Nintendo did make some sharp looking arcade cabinets in the 80's.
The original Donkey Kong arcade game is estimated to have sold anywhere from 80,000 -130,000 cabinets in it's orginial production run. That would put it above other successful classics such as Asteroids, Centipede, and even Defender. Although I couldn't find any production figures for DK 3 I would be willing to bet it was well under 5,000 machines including converted original Donkey Kongs and Juniors. Personally I like the game, I think it's fun and different and good for Nintendo for taking a chance. It can get very monotonous and shooting that spray can up Donkey Kong's butt is a bit.. uh.. unusual.
Still better than the movie.
The importance of Mario in gaming history cannot be understated. Much like Mickey Mouse is the icon of Disney, Mario is the face of all things Nintendo. You could even argue Mario has become the most famous character in video games. Even today over 37 years after Mario's debut as "Jumpman" in Donkey Kong new Mario themed home games are among the best selling and most anticipated games available. The machine that is Nintendo runs on the backbone of Mario's legacy. Donkey Kong would also come back to play in the Nintendo universe with his own games like Donkey Kong Country, or in appearances in the very popular Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. series of games. As for Stanley, well I hope maybe we haven't seen the last of the poor guy yet. Until then Donkey Kong 3 remains a strange failure in Nintendo's history.